By: Deborah Jeffery, RD LD
One way to maintain your mental ability as you age is to eat a proper diet. Just like the rest of our bodies, the brain reacts negatively to a constant intake of high fat and junk foods and prefers to be nourished by a well-balanced diet. Generally speaking, foods that are good for the heart are beneficial to the brain because both organs demand a steady stream of oxygen to perform optimally. For this reason, heart disease and mental decline often go hand in hand. Key nutrients that seem to have an especially beneficial effect on the aging brain are omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
Since the brain is primarily composed of fat, getting the right kind of fats in the diet is critical. The wrong kind of fats, such as saturated or hydrogenated fats, can slow down the mental processes and contribute to constricted blood vessels while healthy fats maintain our hearts and brains. Omega 3 fatty acids are the primary structural fatty acid in the gray matter of the brain called phospholipids. These phospholipids are found in the membranes that control the entrance and exit of material to and from each brain cell. Eating foods that are high in omega 3 fatty acids can help aid communication between neurons. Good sources of omega 3 fatty acids are high fat, cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, tuna (in small amounts due to its high mercury content), and herring. In fact several studies have shown that people who eat at least one fish meal a week were significantly less likely to end up with Alzheimer disease than those who never or hardly ever ate fish. Other food sources of omega 3 fatty acids include walnuts, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and canola oil.
Other essential brain foods include fruits and vegetables because of their high antioxidant content. The brain burns oxygen and glucose and produces lots of free radicals. Free radicals cause problems in the brain by destroying neurons which often leads to memory loss. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize the free radicals to stop this cell destruction. The best way to get these antioxidants is by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. Top sources of antioxidants include berries especially blueberries, nuts, citrus fruits, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots, pumpkin, avocados, tomatoes, and broccoli. Black or green tea is a good source but instant, bottled, and herbal teas have little protective value; and one drink per day of wine provides a beneficial level of antioxidants.
In addition, foods containing B vitamins or magnesium are crucial to ensuring normal brain and nerve function. Both of these nutrients are often found in whole grains and in enriched and whole grain products such as bread, rice, pasta and fortified cereals. Whole grains also supply the brain with its preferred source of fuel, carbohydrates.
Eating “smart” can improve thinking, learning ability, and memory while protecting against the mental deterioration that often accompanies aging.
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